If a vote could be taken among "the foreign policy community" (meaning government officials, journalists, and academics who specialize in foreign affairs) there probably would be a solid, perhaps even overwhelming, majority in favor of a return to some form of military conscription in the United States.
The case is a strong one that US military forces are not now sufficiently manned in numbers, quality, and experience to sustain the present and prospective commitments of the United States in world affairs.
The failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran is only the most visible indication that US armed forces are not up to peak readiness for emergency operations. Those who make a specialty of studying the state of the world and its inherent risks and dangers largely agree that improvement is desirable. And how else to improve than to revive the selective service system?
Republican candidate Ronald Reagan thinks raising the rate of pay would be preferable. Like most other politicians of today he opposes an actual revival of compulsory service for the obvious elemental reason that it is unpopular and would probably lead to a revival of the kind of draft resistance which marred the American scene toward the end of the Vietnam experience. No politician wants to risk responsibility for launching another wave of student riots.
But the military payroll is already a major feature of the federal budget. It could not be raised substantially without either undermining the case for tax cutting or giving another boost to an unbalanced budget, hence to inflation. The best way to improve the military posture of the US without damaging the econony would be to revive conscription, which is precisely what the President and the Congress took a first step toward doing when they decided to revive registration.
That first step is now in trouble both on university compuses and in the courts, and for the same reason. It is obviously a move toward conscription, but not acknowledged so to be. The government contention in the public forum and in the legal case in the US District Court in Philadelphia which went unanimously against the government was that induction of any of the new registrants is not imminent. The government says registration is only a stand-by measure.
That contention does not impress either the student protesters or that Philadelphia court. The three judges who ruled that the proposed registration is unconstitutional did so on the ground that registration imposes a burden on a single class of citizens. This, the three judges contended, can be done only if justification could be shown. "The justification here," they said, "should relate to the governmental need to raise military forces by conscription. Registration of a class of citizens with absolutely no purpose would be unconstitutional under any standard of review." In this case the court found discrimination against males because females were excluded from the registration. More importantly, no adequate justification had been presented to the court, it said.
In other words, (unless overtuned by the Supreme Court) registration, whether it be of males only or of males and females, should not happen unless the government first makes a case that conscription may again be necessary. And this is precisely what the political leaders of the country have not yet done.
They have not come forward and asserted that the international situation is so grave that the United States must go back to conscription. They all say that the Soviet Union has done things it should not have done: They all talk about Soviet agression in various places, including Afghanistan. But they have not yet made to the American people or to the judges of the federal court in Philadelphia the case which most people in the foreign policy community think ought to be made.
President Carter has said that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan constitutes the worst crisis since World War II. Ronald Reagan makes it sound even worse. But the President is not willing yet to say that conscription is necessary. And Mr. Reagan is not even willing to support the grain embargo as a means of letting the Soviets know how much he disapproves of what they are doing to the Afghans.
The United States was ready to go into World War I when the Lusitania was sunk with a passenger list of mostly Americans. It was ready to go into World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. But the case for conscription now is so far largely an intellectual abstraction. It has not been sold to the American people, to the younger generation, or even to the federal courts. Until the case is made, persuasively, by the leadership of both parties, there will be difficulties about military manpower -- even though Justice Brennan has stayed the Philadelphia decision.